Social unrest and public outcries led to the removal of the Syngman Rhee government, and the subsequent muted US response to the taking of power by a military general. Korea came under the authoritarian leadership of Park Chung-Hee, who had taken power through a bloodless coup on 16 May 1961.
Park was born in 1917 into a poor yangban family. He was ambitious and eager to seize whatever opportunities could be found in a Korea under Japanese colonial rule. Park attended a teacher’s college and worked briefly as an elementary school teacher. Then he decided on a military career, and passed the examination for the Japanese-run Manchurian Military Academy. His talents as an officer were soon recognized and he was one of the few Koreans to attend the Japanese Imperial Military Academy near Tokyo. Subsequently he was posted to a Japanese Army regiment in Manchuria, where he served until Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II.
Park returned to South Korea when it was still under American occupation. He was one of the first members of the constabulary, an indigenous military force supervised by the U.S. Army Military Government in Korea. In 1948, Park was nearly executed after an failed mutiny led to a purge of leftists from its ranks. His superior officers convinced the Rhee government to spare his life, in light of his strong potential as a military officer. By the time end of the Korean War Park had reisent to the rank of brigadier general and had the reputation as one of the most promising young officers in the army.
Like some of the other young officers in the ROK Army during the 1950s, Park felt some measure of frustration with civilian rule. Syngman Rhee, who dominated South Korean politics until 1960, was an aging autocrat whose corrupt government did little to raise living standards or improve the South Korean economy.
The junta under Park Chung Hee quickly consolidated power, removed those it considered corrupt and unqualified from government and army positions, and laid plans for the future. The thirty two- member Supreme Council for National Reconstruction (SCNR) became all-powerful.
The Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) was created in June 1961 to prevent a countercoup and to suppress all potential enemies. It was to have not only investigative power, but also the power to arrest and detain anyone suspected of wrongdoing or harboring antijunta sentiments. The KCIA extended its power to economic and foreign affairs under its first director, Colonel (retired) Kim Chong-p'il, a relative of Park, and one of the original planners of the coup against Chang.
In May 1961 , the junta pledged to make an all-out effort to build a self-reliant economy and to carry out a "great human revolution" by wiping out all corruption and evil practices in the government and by introducing a "fresh and clean morality". The National Assembly was dissolved, and high-level civilian officials were replaced by military officers. By 1963 the junta's economic policies had not produced any favorable results.
The KCIA under Kim Chong-p'il was involved in a number of scandals that considerably tarnished the junta's image. The military leaders had worked actively to establish a political party, later known as the Democratic Republican Party (DRP), which existed from 1963 to 1980, in preparation for the return of politics to the civilians. Former politicians, however, were prohibited from engaging in organizational activities. Although Park had announced in February 1963 that he would not participate in civilian politics, the following month he announced a popular referendum to decide whether the junta should extend its rule for another four years. Facing stiff opposition from both the South Korean public and the United States, the plan for a referendum was canceled.
The junta had drawn up a new constitution and had put it before a popular referendum in December 1962, receiving 78.8 percent of the vote. Under the new constitution, the president was to be elected by direct popular vote and have strong powers — including the authority to appoint the premier and cabinet members without legislative consent and to order emergency financial and economic measures. Under United States pressure, Park, who had held the position of acting president following Yun's resignation in March 1962, retired from the army as a four-star general and ran as the DRP candidate in the October 1963 presidential election. He was elected by a narrow margin, winning 46.6 percent of the vote, as compared with 45.1 percent for Yun Po-son, the New Democratic Party candidate. In the subsequent election for the unicameral legislature, held in November 1963, the government won 110 of the 175 seats.
Until 1971 South Korea operated under the political framework it had adopted in 1963. Even though Park imposed some restrictions on members of the press, intellectuals, and opposition politicians, these groups were permitted considerable latitude to criticize the government and to engage in organizational activities. Although there were numerous student demonstrations, particularly in 1965 when the government normalized its relations with Japan and sent 45,000 combat troops to support the Republic of Vietnam in response to a request from the United States, the students were controlled and there were no casualties in confrontations with the police. The presidential and National Assembly elections in 1967 and 1971 were closely contested but won by Park. In order to succeed himself for the third time in 1971, Park amended the constitution in 1969.
In December 1971, Park again tightened his control over the country. He proclaimed a national emergency and forced through the National Assembly a bill granting him complete power to control, regulate, and mobilize the people, the economy, the press, and everything else in the public domain. In October 1972, he proclaimed martial law, dissolved the National Assembly, closed all universities and colleges, imposed strict press censorship, and suspended political activities. Within a few days he "submitted" a new draft constitution—designated the yusin (revitalization) constitution—to a national referendum. The 1972 constitution allowed Park to succeed himself indefinitely, to appoint one-third of the National Assembly's members, and to exercise emergency powers at will.
Having concentrated all power around himself, Park suppressed his opponents harshly. KCIA agents abducted Kim Dae Jung, Park's opponent in the 1971 presidential elections, from a hotel in Tokyo in August 1973, precipitating a major crisis in South Korean-Japanese relations. Kim had been abroad after the election and remained there after Park declared martial law, traveling between Japan and the United States and conducting anti-Park activities. Students demonstrating against theyusin constitution were summarily incarcerated. In March 1976, prominent political leaders, including former President Yun and presidential candidate Kim, issued the Democratic Declaration calling for the restoration of democracy. Park had them arrested and sentenced to five to eight years in prison.
Under the strong leadership of Park Chung-Hee, corruption in government was cleaned up and Korea had taken ownership of its development process. The government was no longer an obstacle but a central figure in implementing reforms and economic policies. Soon after Park Chung-Hee took power, the government systematically implemented tax reform and took apart the government-business apparatus of crony capitalism.
The turning point in Korea’s development history came under Park Chung-Hee; the government took ownership of Korea’s development process, addressing government failure and ceasing to be an obstacle to economic reform and progress. The government’s efforts to root out corruption in government and carry out tax reform were perhaps the single most important government actions in Korea’s development history.
Korea’s capacity to secure tax revenue was crucial in providing sufficient fiscal resources - government savings - to maintain an economic environment conducive to growth, not to mention allow the government to take an active role in economic development. Fiscal soundness allowed Korea not only to manage inflation and induce foreign capital but also to make huge investments in education and infrastructure. It also allowed the government to provide subsidized credit and tax benefits for industrialization and to promote socioeconomic policies such as construction of vital infrastructure and the Saemaul Movement for broad based development.
General Park ran a highly authoritarian regime, with few formal checks on state power, and used the resources of the state to help industrialization in alliance with the large Chaebols (as long as they did not pose a threat to his political power). As excessively weak and strong states can impede growth and lead to misallocation of resources.
Countries that undertook land reforms tended to achieve the development having well-educated labor force, thereby reducing poverty effectively. Since the farmers were only able to buy small plots oflands it resulted in a highly fragmented agriculture sector that was inefficient. This was later reformed under the Park Chung-Hee government by land consolidation, to introduce large scale enterprise farming.
As farmers faced financial difficulties, they became heavily indebted. The worsening situation of farmers became a political issue later on especially during the presidential election in 1963. During the Presidential election in 1963, Park Chung-Hee who had narrowly won the election from Yoon BoSun had used this issue in his Presidential Campaign, criticizing the negative effect of Korea becoming too aid-dependent. Having been a son of farmer and implemented a debt relief program for farmers in 1961, President Park's position on aid helped him gain the support of the farmers.
The Saemaul Movement was instituted with great fanfare by Park in the fall of 1971 . The movement was envisioned as a highly organized, intensively administered campaign to improve the "environment" quality of rural life through projects undertaken by the villagers themselves with government assistance. As a result of the Saemaul Movement, about 85 percent of villages had electricity, and about 60 percent of farm households had television sets by the late 1970s. Some 85 percent of rural children continued from free, obligatory primary schooling to middle school, and over 50 percent of these middle school pupils were entering high schools. Many farmers also acquired modern amenities that had been available only to city dwellers just a decade earlier, such as sewing machines, radios, irons, and wall clocks.
President Park placed Korea’s industrialists under state arrest on charges of corruption and bribery in their acquisition of vested properties and dismissed top government officials or sent them on two-week training courses. He then personally monitored the performance of the economic bureaucrats and shifted them from one bureau to another quickly, so that they could not develop corruption networks. The implications of the anti-corruption campaign under President Park go beyond just a cleaner government; it meant that the government, once an obstacle to reform, could now play a central role in coordinating more efficient outcomes and addressing market failures.
It is hard to imagine that the subsequent development policies of Park Chung-Hee such as clean government, tax reform, and rural development, which set the stage for Korea’s broadbased rapid development, could have been possible had the state or other self-interested group been an obstacle to development.
A high proportion of those people who regarded themselves as middle class resided in Seoul, the locale for much of the nation's wealth, talent, and many of its cultural resources. As beneficiaries of the rapidly expanding economy, much of the middle class either was content with its situation or indifferent to politics. Many highly educated persons in this group who found themselves in less wellpaid positions than they would have liked remained dissatisfied, and together with students and intellectuals they formed the core of opposition to the Park regime.
Force alone could not sustain the authoritarian system. Park's strongest defense against his critics had been the high rate of economic growth under his leadership. By 1978, however, the growth rate had begun to decline, and inflation had become a serious problem. Seoul successfully weathered the first "oil shock" when Middle Eastern suppliers drastically raised prices in 1973, but was hard hit by the second shock in 1978-79. In December 1978, Park belatedly adopted a stabilization plan to cool down the economy, but the plan caused a se rious recession, leading to a succession of bankruptcies and increased unemployment.
Disaffection was particularly severe in urban areas. Although the New Democratic Party was suffering from internal dissension, it won a plurality in the December 1978 general elections for the National Assembly, the first general elections to be held since 1973. In the 1978 elections, the Democratic Republican Party won only 30.9 percent of the popular vote, a decline of 7.8 percent from 1973. In contrast, the opposition obtained 34.7 percent, an increase of 2.2 percent from 1973. Independent candidates won 27.2 percent of the vote (twenty-two seats in the National Assembly); fifteen of the twenty-two subsequently joined the New Democratic Party, although three were "persuaded" to switch to the government party. Because one-third of the National Assembly's members were government-appointed, the opposition could not command a majority.
The new leader of the New Democratic Party, Kim Young Sam, began his challenge to the government in June 1979. He announced to the foreign press his readiness to meet with Kim II Sung, the North Korean president, to discuss matters relating to unification and delivered a scathing attack on the government in the National Assembly. He argued that the government had been in power too long and had been clearly discredited by the elections. After Park's dismissal of popular opposition leader Kim Young Sam from the National Assembly, Korea erupted with severe riots and demonstrations.
President Park was assassinated on October 26, 1979 by Kim Chae-kyu, Director of the (South) Korean Central Intelligence Agency, and emergency martial law was proclaimed. In his eighteen years in power (1961-79), Park had been obsessed with ushering the country into the ranks of developed nations, had pursued his goal relentlessly, and had achieved considerable results. Having been trained under the Japanese, he closely patterned his development strategies after Japan's, where a feudal society had been turned into a modern nation between the 1860s and 1930s.
A South Korean court on 10 July 2020 sentenced former President Park Geun-hye to 20 years in jail and fined her 20 billion won over a corruption scandal that led to her impeachment in 2017. The Seoul High Court delivered the sentence which was shorter than the previous combined 30 years she had received in an appeals trial. This is because the court found her not guilty of most charges related to coercion or the drafting of a so-called whitelist of pro-government cultural figures. Park, who had been a no show at all court proceedings since October 2017, did not appear, citing health reasons. The cases were initially tried separately, but the Supreme Court in 2019 sent them back to the lower court for a retrial after which the Seoul High Court decided to combine them.
South Korea's highest court on 14 January 2021 upheld a lower court ruling that sentenced ousted former President Park Geun-hye to 20 years in prison for bribery and other corruption charges. Park, who will have to serve a total of 22 years, became the country's fourth ex-president to be convicted of a crime.
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